EIEIO 07: Sabotage Preview

I saw a new World War II video game during E3. Yeah, I know, I know--but hear me out. You don't play another carbon-copied army dude in this one. As far as I know, you never storm the beaches of Normandy either. In fact, it's not even in the first person, and it's only halfway a shooter to begin with.

Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't even see it at E3. I saw it E.I.E.I.O., indie publisher Gamecock's much more laid back and developer-staffed E3 competitor, helpfully located right in the middle of the E3 convention hall--and when I say "E3 convention hall," I mean "city of Santa Monica."

The game in question is Sabotage, a third person stealth action game from Hamburg-based Replay Studios, and it puts players into the role of Violette Summer, a British operative working behind enemy lines to pull off one-woman covert ops and weaken the Nazi war machine. Though her exploits in Sabotage are fictional, Summer is based on historical British Special Operations Executive secret agent Violette Szabo, who executed numerous successful missions before being captured and executed.

Art director Sascha Jungnickel demonstrated some real-time gameplay from Sabotage, while lead programmer Boris Bauer spoke on the game. Impressively, the game manages to distinguish itself from similar games like Splinter Cell by having such an unusual setting for the genre--while distinguishing itself from other games in the same setting by having such unusual gameplay for period. Sabotage is more than just a relatively uncommon pairing of concepts, however.

"We are interested in creating an illustrative style, not just simulating everything," said Bauer, explaining the game's dreamlike, blown-out visual style. Sabotage's gameplay is actually narrated by Summer herself, in an attractive British accent, as she recalls the missions being played--this both ties into the game's impressionistic visuals and integrates mission briefings and objectives organically into gameplay without resorting to the typical radio briefing mechanic.

Core gameplay is similar to other third-person stealth games at its root. As Summer, you make your way to objectives while attempting to keep yourself out of enemy sight, and eliminate targets, plant explosive charges, reach prisoners of war, or any number of other covert objectives.

The game has a melancholy air to it that begins with the visual style and continues with the tone of some of its missions, further distinguishing itself from its machismo-fueled WWII FPS cousins. When you reach a group of Polish POWs, you are there not to rescue them or facilitate their own escape--their rescue is simply not feasible. Rather, you are there to deliver cyanide capsules, ensuring that they will not allow potentially crucial information to fall into enemy hands. "This kind of stuff is real. It happened a lot," Bauer noted, speaking on the research the team performed. "Some of the things that went on were extremely horrible."

Upon killing Nazis, players will also sometimes come upon letters the soldiers intended to send home to their families. "Sometimes these guys are evil, but sometimes they're just guys who want to go home," Bauer pointed out. "We want to use that to give enemies some personality and depth."

That's not to say the whole game is doom and gloom. The game has its share of video gamey conceits. In addition to letters, killing decorated enemies may yield various types of medals, which confer to Summer points that can be applied to various statistics: stealth, strength, stamina, firearm skill, and morphine effectiveness. Players who enjoy a good fight can adjust accordingly.

Stealth is still the safest and most efficient way to achieve your goals, but the team doesn't want to discourage players from attacking problems the way they want to. "If a shootout does occur, it should be satisfying for the player, even if it is really dangerous," Bauer assured me.

The game's morphine mechanic is particularly interesting, seemingly taking inspiration from Unbisoft Montreal's excellent Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If you die and happen to have morphine at your disposal, you can inject some and essentially give the situation another shot. Time freezes and the environment is rendered in a ghostly white, washed-out style, at which point you can reposition Summer in a more advantageous position--for example, right behind an enemy--and return to real time. What's that have to do with morphine? The idea is that Summer is lying in a hospital bed, telling her story--that is, the game itself--and a strong injection of morphine has caused her to distort the facts in her own head, after which she recants and tells it again.

To add some more flavor to the game's stealth kills, the highlight of the gameplay system, the team has employed a producer from Rockstar's infamous Manhunt 2, to translate that series' trademark "execution moves" over to Sabotage. Bauer rushed to note that Sabotage will not be as brutal as the currently AO-rated Manhunt 2, but there will be a good deal of variety in the weapon-specific executions.

While the majority of the demonstrated gameplay took place in wooded Nazi installations, the full game is promised to span a wide variety of environments. Towards the end of the session, the Replay devs showed a glimpse of a level set around the iconic Notre Dame cathedral.

Though I only heard a few pieces, the music seems to exhibit a similar range, with both the fairly typical dense ambient tracks one expects from this kind of game but also more refreshing selections such as a sparse piano piece perfectly suited to the game's melancholy air.

For such a world-changing, multi-faceted, and devastating event as World War II, video games have been oddly myopic in their depiction of the conflict. Sabotage distinguished itself for me by bucking this trend, and held my interest with an effective atmosphere coupled with gameplay rooted in proven concepts and sprinkled with some added variety.

Gamecock Media Group plans to ship Replay Studios' Sabotage for PC and Xbox 360 later this year.